NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Republican Mike Johanns has never been one for the limelight.
Johanns almost revels in the idea that unlike his predecessor — the heat-seeking missile known as Chuck Hagel — he hasn't appeared on a Sunday morning talk show in four years in the U.S. Senate.
Quiet conversations suit Johanns better than fiery rhetoric.
And, as it turns out, so do drama-free exits.
The man known to many as “Mild-Mannered Mike” announced last week that he would not seek re-election, after a single term in the Senate.
He made the announcement in his typical low-key style, issuing a short press release. No fuss or drama. No press conference. No weeks of flirting with the media. No “Will-he-or-won't-he?” run.
He made it simple and quick, leaving plenty of time for others to run for his seat.
“I just want time with my wife, my family and my faith,” said Johanns, who will officially step down in January 2015.
Johanns' decision to leave after one term, when he is arguably at the height of his political power, is a rarity in the Senate, where many hold office for decades and leave as octogenarians.
In doing so, Johanns, 62, made history.
He is the first senator from Nebraska since 1916 — when senators were first elected by popular vote — not to seek re-election after only one full term, according to Smart Politics, a nonpartisan political research site at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Johanns' decision ends a 32-year political career that ran the gamut.
He started as a Lancaster County commissioner and then transitioned into city politics, first as a Lincoln city councilman and then as mayor. Eventually he made his way to Washington, D.C., where he spent three years as President George W. Bush's agriculture secretary before running for and winning a Senate seat in 2008.
Of course, there was also that gig at the State Capitol.
In 1998, Johanns made a long-shot bid for Nebraska governor, famously traversing the state for two years and racking up 140,000 miles on his Chevrolet Corsica. Although he was heavily outspent, Johanns defeated two heavyweights of their day: former U.S. Rep. Jon Christensen and State Auditor John Breslow.
On Tuesday, the day after he announced his decision to leave politics in two years, Johanns was back on the road, riding shotgun in a Dodge Charger driven by a staffer, on his way to town hall meetings across central and western Nebraska.
During the trip he talked about his modest upbringing on a dairy farm in Iowa, his unabashed love for his wife, Stephanie, his religious faith and his political legacy.
He appeared happy and healthy, openly relieved to have the decision behind him.
It became clear that his desire to spend more time with his wife was a driving force behind his decision. He noted that when he was agriculture secretary, he traveled frequently, often without Stephanie.
As ag secretary, Johanns held an unprecedented 52 farm bill forums across the country. He focused on prying open overseas markets for U.S. beef, such as Japan, that had been slammed shut over fears of mad-cow disease.
“We landed in Washington and, literally, for the next three years, I never put the suitcase away,” Johanns said.
In political circles it is well known that Stephanie is Johanns' key political adviser and best friend. The two talk frequently. When he is on the road, they exchange six to eight telephone calls a day.
Johanns literally beams when talking about their relationship, saying he enjoys her company and wants to spend more time as a couple. The two met while serving together on the Lancaster County Board.
“We always tell people “If you marry your best friend, that would be a wonderful foundation,'” Johanns said.
Even when talking about his strong faith, the conversation returns to Stephanie. Johanns, who is Catholic, said he and Stephanie pray together frequently, especially during Lent.
“I love to see Steph pray the rosary. It's such a peaceful thing,” Johanns said.
Now, he said, he hopes to take her on a vacation that — he can guarantee — won't be cut short by some government emergency.
“It's been, since the mayoral years, that I could never guarantee I'd be at a birthday or (that) a vacation would end as planned,” he said.
He also was keen to talk about his parents, dairy farmers from Osage, Iowa, who passed away without much of a retirement. His parents worked for years, saving up money to travel. Then, after retiring, his mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and their travel days were done.
His parents never felt “cheated,” he said, but it's clear that they were on his mind as he thinks about his future.
As for his past, Johanns said, he hopes he will be remembered as a guy who was “good to work with” and as a politician who listened to his constituents.
When asked about his legacy, Johanns cited several “nay” votes in the Senate, saying his work opposing legislation was just as important as getting bills passed.
Johanns opposed President Barack Obama's health care overhaul as well as the banking regulation law known as Dodd-Frank.
He also led the charge to stop legislation, known as cap-and-trade, intended to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Opponents said it would prove costly, particularly for Midwestern power plants dependent on burning coal.
“We all love the touchdown. But, honestly, it's about blocking and tackling,” Johanns said.
His most ambitious effort on Capitol Hill has probably been his work with the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which seeks to tackle the country's budget woes. The group has had difficulty finding traction, but Johanns still has faith, saying he expects their work to come to fruition in years to come.
“I firmly believe that much of the ground we plowed will become law,” he said.
On the home front, Johanns played a pivotal role in getting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline rerouted. He was the first prominent Republican politician to question the pipeline's original route through the Sand Hills.
He also led the charge to cut off federal funding to the community organizing group known as ACORN, after a conservative activist released undercover videos that seemed to show the group advocating illicit activities.
“He certainly watched out for Nebraska's interests on every front,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
As for his years as governor, Johanns said one of his proudest achievements was reforming the state's mental health system.
Under Johanns, several of the state's mental health hospitals closed and more community-based programs, including group homes, were developed for the mentally ill.
“I'll never forget when I signed LB 1083. We had a room packed with constituents. ... Some were crying,” said Johanns, who described it as a first big step in reforming the state's mental health system, although he acknowledged that more needs to be done.
One person who will miss Johanns on the public stage is former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who made an unsuccessful bid to get back his old job in the Senate last year.
Kerrey worked with Johanns when Kerrey was a senator and Johanns was mayor of Lincoln. He said Johanns will be missed, in part because of his good nature.
“His demeanor is going to be missed,” Kerrey said. “He's a good person. He treats people well.”
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